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April 5, 2016

How A Teenager’s Leaks Site Changed Pro Wrestling

The Monday Night Wars encapsulate a glorious time in sports entertainment history. From late 1995 to early 2001, the two biggest promotions in the country battled every week in a winner-take-all bout for ratings and the future of the industry.

In one corner, the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) was ushering in its Attitude era, introducing icons of hardcore wrestling like Mick Foley to mainstream America, alongside a slew of new superstars like the Rock, Triple H, and Stone Cold Steve Austin, who chugged beers and flicked his middle fingers at management. In the other, World Championship Wrestling was poaching and rebranding WWF’s most established characters: Hulk Hogan, Bret “the Hitman” Hart, Kevin Nash, and Scott Hall.

But what made the spectacle grander was the emergence of the Internet, which was spoiling all their secrets. No longer was the drama enclosed in a world that existed exclusively within the window of televised matches. Wrestling rumor and “leak” sites allowed viewers to supplement the official programs with contract details, injury diagnoses, management disputes, and sordid goings-on that wouldn’t be out of place these days on Deadspin, Reddit, or TMZ.

As the details leaked, the product on stage was forced to adapt. The facade of “kayfabe” was broken; the events went meta. Rumors of labor disputes and infamous Montreal screw-job coalesced into WWF owner Vince McMahon becoming an actual on-stage character. Details about a wrestler’s injuries made their high-flying acts even more dramatic. Wrestling moved into post-modernism.

My go-to site for wrestling-related news and rumors at the time was RajahWWF.com—now simply Rajah.com, the switch coming after the World Wildlife Fund snatched back the acronym. It was created in 1997 by then-18-year-old Rajah Kumar, a biology major who doubled as wrestling’s Matt Drudge from his dorm at the University of Alberta in Canada. The Kernel spoke to him about the site’s history, the Internet rumor mill’s impact on wrestling, and the WWF’s attempts to quash the leaks.

How did the site start?

I didn’t have a computer until I went to university, and so, when I got to use it, I didn’t search for school-related material, I searched for wrestling stuff. I’d visit sites, read rumors, and email them to my brother. He got pretty sick of getting these emails every day, so he said, ‘Why don’t you start a website?’ He pointed me to Angelfire.com, and I made a really crappy-looking site.

Do you remember when you realized wrestling was scripted?

It’s just something you figure out. I remember watching with my dad… even to this day, it almost seems like he thinks it’s real. He never sat me down and was like, “Son, wrestling isn’t real.” But as I grew into a teenager, I was like, “They’re obviously not hitting each other for real.” I knew it was scripted, but I didn’t know the backstage dynamics and the politics.

“People don’t want to just watch what’s on. They want to know what’s going on beyond what they’re seeing.”

Have you ever been burned with fake leaks?

All the time. There was a guy who used to work for WWE and he’d share information, but in hindsight, he’d plant fake news. You had to weed your way through that. When I’d go back to him and be like, “This didn’t happen,” he was like, “Plans changed.” He had an easy out. And there was also a time where there was a mission to send fake news around. I remember somebody on my site saying that [WWE wrestler] Viscera died, and we posted a tribute and everything. But he didn’t die. So, when he actually did pass away two years ago, we put up that tribute we did 15 years ago.

Did WWF ever contact you?

WWF.com used to have a show called Byte This!, and they’d interview wrestlers, and they started to mention Rajah. They’d be like, “Well, what does Rajah think, what does Rajah say?” I communicated with them through email and they were pretty cool. “Good job on your site,” blah blah blah. I was a kid and pretty thrilled. Then I started working with them selling merchandise as an affiliate, and that slowly started to… I wouldn’t say they wanted to dictate what I’d do, but they were like, change the design, get rid of this. It came to the point where they were like, sign your site over to us.

They tried to take over?

They’re like, you have WWF in your domain. That’s our trademark. If you don’t, we’re going to take you to court. It got to the point where they sent a note that said you have until this date to sign your site over. I just ignored it, and they went away.

So, it was a bully tactic.

Back in the day, it was kids running these sites. If you got a letter from WWF’s attorney, of course you’re not going to want to get into that mess, so you just sign your site over. That’s what a lot of people did. WWF took over a lot of sites. I remember at one point, they tried to get my host to take my site offline. Now, I think they’ve come to realize wrestling sites helped.

As a fan, do you think leak sites helped or hurt the wrestling product?

They’ve helped. People don’t want to just watch what’s on. They want to know what’s going on beyond what they’re seeing. Everybody knows it’s scripted; they even mark themselves as “sports entertainment” now. The interest is more in the politics and stuff, rather than what’s even on TV.

The leaks also made for more interesting stories.

If you look back at when the Internet really went crazy with WWE sites in the late ’90s, that was when they were scripting their best TV. It caused them to step it up. But when the dot-com crash happened in the early 2000s, and lot of sites went to the wayside… I don’t think [the drop in quality] is completely correlated, but it certainly helped.

“Back in the day, it was kids running these sites.”

Any big leaks stick out?

Oftentimes, it’s not so much leaks a few hours before a show of who was spotted backstage, or who’s scheduled on Raw, but more [and] bigger company-impacting leaks. One example is the whole CM Punk situation, where he basically walked out on the company. There were a bunch of backstage rumors that Punk was legitimately unhappy, but WWE tried their best to downplay it, at first stating that Punk was simply taking time off. But through the Internet, everyone knew what the real situation was. I know for a fact WWE was not happy about any of this “backstage news” getting out to the public.

Do you have a sense of who might’ve been behind the Reddit r/squaredcircle leaks in 2013?

It might have been a WWE employee, but more likely a friend of one who was getting this [firsthand] or secondhand knowledge. It’s tough to say if it was someone who was just disgruntled, because the claim was always this person was trying to enlighten WWE on how easy it was to leak results, that they needed to run a tighter ship. Personally, I think the truth might be somewhere in the middle—someone who had access and was pretty much flaunting how easy it was to obtain and post.

Do you still watch wrestling?

I was watching it religiously until 2003 or 2004. I got married and my wife wasn’t… she hated wrestling. And the product wasn’t as interesting. Within a couple of years, I was done. But within the last couple years… I have two kids now, and my son likes wrestling. That’s all he thinks about. So, by watching it with him, I’ve gotten back into it.

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